In one of the most famous texts of the Bible, Jesus says that we need to be "born again" (John 3: 3). To enter the Kingdom of God, people need to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and "born from above." But here a big question comes up: If this wonderful event happened to us, how would we know? What would be the sign?
In 1746 Jonathan Edwards, America's greatest theologian, wrote a book in order to answer this question. In his book titled Religious Affections Edwards says that the way to tell whether we have been truly born again by the Spirit of God is to see whether we have a Godly practice. Do we have in our lives a pattern of good works governed by the ten commandments? Do we make good deeds our “central business” the way physicians make medicine their central business? And do we keep on in our practice of Godliness for the long run of our lives, and not just in little spurts while other people are watching?
According to Edwards, talking about Jesus a lot doesn’t count for much. According to the gospels, people who say “Lord” all the time don’t necessarily impress God. After all, talk is cheap—and Edwards uses exactly those words. To follow Jesus we have to practice what he preached. And what Jesus preached is that a good tree is known by its fruit—not by its twigs or leaves or heaving branches. And Christians are known by their Godly practice, not by good intentions or pious talk or spiritual hand-waving. A good tree is known by producing actual fruit, and a good Christian is known by producing actual good works.
But can't good works be counterfeited too? Can't people make a show of them, and try to get credit for them, and go after them not to do good but just to look good? Absolutely. And so—to see whether we have the Spirit of Christ in us, and not just the Spirit of self-promotion—we should ask whether our good deeds cost us something. Are we willing to accept the pain of new life as well as its joy?
- Do we give money away that we would rather have kept, and do we (eventually) find satisfaction in doing so?
- Do we accept other people's suffering as a shared burden, and thus relieve them of a part of it?
- Are we able to thank God for something even when we are in trouble?
- Do we praise freely and complain rarely?
- Do we put the best face on other people's motives while also suspecting our own?
- When we grow old and weak, do we grieve over our inability to serve others as much as we once could?
Only God knows a human heart. But we can see a Christian practice. And, generally speaking, we can tell a good heart by good deeds that express the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
By thinking in this way, Edwards joined a long line of people who speak the Christian faith with a Reformed accent. Reformed Christians put a lot of emphasis on disciplined holiness as the center of a Christian life—not how you talk, but how you walk; not how you feel, but how you act. As we saw in an earlier blog, John Calvin wrote that the main function of the ten commandments is not to make us feel guilty, but to guide us in a straight Christian walk. Before worship styles changed, many Reformed churches used to include a reading of the ten commandments for just this reason.
This is one obvious way our “central business” finds its way into church worship. Worship leaders and preachers find a way to lift up good deeds as the normal, healthy pursuit of good Christians. So, for example, they include some version of the Ten Commandments as a guide to life—maybe following an assurance of pardon, or as part of a sermon, or as part of a pastoral prayer, or as sending instructions at the end of a service.
Or, in the same ways, they use the Bible’s other glad counsels for those who want to follow Jesus.
“Let your light shine . . . .” (Matthew 5:16)
“Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable . . . think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
“Pursue righteousness . . . .” (I Timothy 6:11)
“Remind them to be gentle.” (Titus 3:2)
“Bear with one another.” (Colossians 3:13)
“Clothe yourselves with kindness.” (Colossians 3:12)
“Be imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1)
“Strive first for the kingdom.” (Matthew 6:33)
“Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
“You have to be born again,” says Jesus. (John 3:7)
Be patient, says Paul. Put up with each other; forgive one another. (Colossians 3:13)
Paul spells out what it means to be born again. New relationships, attitudes, and practices are not in addition to salvation; they are a part of salvation. A regenerated person might say not only, “I once was blind, but now I see.” They might also say, “I once left my stuff lying around, but now (praise God!) I pick up after myself.”
Good works are the central business of a Christian’s life, wrote Jonathan Edwards. He might have added that this is one business that will outlast every recession.